Time to Bless US-Israel Academic Cooperation

Recently, a study by the Israel on Campus Coalition documented the robust and growing collaboration between Israeli and American researchers, particularly in the sciences. This was a welcome, albeit unsurprising finding that reflects the recognition by US scientists that it is mutually beneficial to work with Israelis who are among the world’s leading scholars in fields such as medicine, physics, chemistry and mathematics. The most serious problem on campuses, however, originates in the social sciences and humanities where festering anti-Israel sentiments among faculty have potentially poisoned the minds of generations of students.
The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement has failed to attract US science faculty to join in its efforts to isolate Israel and boycott its academic institutions. This can be explained by several characteristics of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) community. First, these researchers tend to be involved less in politics and their work is apolitical. Second, American scientists are interested in collaborating with the best researchers in their fields, many of whom are Israeli. Third, scientists understand that advances are accelerated by the free flow of ideas. Fourth, academic freedom in the scientific community means exactly that, the protection of their ability to engage in research that has an academic basis.
Contrast the views of scientists with those of professors in the social sciences and humanities. Faculty in these areas frequently are active in political causes and inject their political agendas into their research and teaching. Thousands of these professors advocate boycotting Israel regardless of the value of joint research in their fields. The boycott advocates also maintain a hypocritical approach to academic freedom, which holds that they are free to say whatever they want about Israel, but anyone who takes issue with their work or political agendas is engaged in McCarthyism. Faculty interested in research and writing about Israel may also be shut out of departments where groupthink demands adherence to the common anti-Israel ideology. Furthermore, while “scientists” asserting the earth is flat would not be granted freedom to teach students such nonsense in the hard sciences because it lacks any scholarly basis, the equivalent of the Flat Earth Society is welcomed in many social science departments, especially Middle East Studies, where anti-Israel political propaganda is often substituted for scholarship.
No one can force a professor to work with an Israeli colleague, and the boycott advocates don’t have any interest in doing so, but the proponents of the anti-Semitic BDS campaign should not be allowed to coerce their colleagues or to require their professional associations to adopt their political agendas. In addition, universities should apply the same standards to social science and humanities faculty that are used in the hard sciences to prevent charlatans from using their warped definition of academic freedom to shield them from criticism or allow them to engage in academic malpractice in their classrooms.
The federal government can also get involved in a positive way by applying a model for scientific cooperation to the social sciences and humanities. I am referring to one of the most longstanding and successful examples of U.S.-Israel cooperation, the Binational Science Foundation. BSF was created in 1972 with both countries investing $30 million to create an endowment to fund research primarily in the basic sciences. In 1984, each country contributed another $40 million to bring the total endowment to $100 million. Since its inception, BSF has awarded more than $600 million from the interest on the endowment to more than 5,000 research projects involving scientists (including 43 Nobel Prize laureates) from more than 400 U.S. institutions located in 46 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Many of these projects have led to important scientific, medical and technological breakthroughs with wide-ranging practical applications.
It is time that a new binational foundation be created to promote similar research collaboration in the social sciences and humanities, which I call the Binational Labor, Education and Social Science Foundation or BLESS (I like that acronym, but it could be given a different name to embrace joint funding in non-scientific fields). Like BSF and the other successful binational academic foundation – BARD (the Binational Agriculture Research and Development Fund) – a small amount of money goes a long way. Even at a time when budgets are tight, it is not a lot to ask the Israeli and American governments to invest, say, $10 million each in a BLESS endowment. As with the other foundations, interest on the endowment would be used to fund joint research projects and, given that research in these fields is far less expensive than in the sciences, it would be possible to award hundreds of small grants each year.
These grants would include travel by the American collaborators to Israel, which would have several benefits. In addition to facilitating joint projects, BLESS grants would send a strong message that the United States does not support boycotting Israel and would contribute to isolating the BDS advocates and crippling their anti-Semitic campaign. A second benefit would be to encourage American faculty who do not have any connection to colleagues in Israel to seek out collaborators. Since the grants include travel to Israel, faculty with no previous exposure to Israel or Israelis would be introduced to the people and the country. These contacts would demystify the country and allow faculty to return with a greater understanding of Israeli history, politics and culture. They may not become Zionists, but professors will be better equipped to respond to anti-Israel faculty, oppose BDS, and provide their students with an enriched education based on their collaborative research projects.
To prevent the fund from being politicized, it is crucial that a reputable board of Israel Studies scholars be appointed to choose peer reviewers and oversee the distribution of grants. It would be counterproductive if the decision makers were BDS advocates or Middle East faculty types who have turned government-funded Middle East Studies centers into anti-Israel propaganda programs. My suggestion would be to ask the Israel Studies Association for recommendations of American and Israeli scholars to serve on the governing and peer review boards.
This is an ideal time, politically, to create a new binational foundation. First, a new administration is coming into office and the President-elect has repeatedly stated his support for strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. This is an inexpensive way to do just that with no political downside. Members of Congress have an incentive to support the program. Most are already pro-Israel and believe in the values and interests our nations share. They also want to demonstrate their commitment to voters and donors, but may no longer be able to do so by supporting military assistance to Israel because the aid package negotiated by the Obama administration precludes Israel from seeking additional aid. The Trump administration will hopefully renegotiate that agreement to provide Israel with more aid and less restrictive conditions. In the meantime, members of Congress will be looking for other ways to show their support for Israel -- establishing the BLESS Foundation would be one way to simultaneously help themselves, Israel and the United States.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including the new 2017 editon of Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, The Arab Lobby, and the novel, After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.